7 Unforgettable Things You Learn As An Exchange Student
Signing up and taking part in an overseas exchange program is often the highlight of most students' college experience. However, making the decision to do it can be a little nerve-wracking.
I took part in a program myself - I spent a year in Brazil in the northeastern city of Recife. I've summed up some of my experiences and things that I learned, as well as other things that I know foreign exchange students experience in general.
1. You learn more about yourself.
Let's face it - travelling to a new country (most likely by yourself) can be both exciting and a little scary.
However, during the process of travel, settling in and your day-to-day activities, you'll learn more about yourself: your habits, your coping methods, your strengths and resourcefulness, and which areas you'd like to improve on. You become your own best friend as you have to depend on yourself quite a bit in the beginning.
You may even discover new talents or hobbies that you didn't know you enjoyed.
2. You gain confidence and independence.
Two things that almost all foreign exchange students say that they gained during their experiences are self confidence and a sense of independence. Learning independence plays such an important part in being in a strange new territory by yourself. This is the absolute truth. During my year's stay in Brazil, I had to learn to fend for myself, make my own decisions, and keep myself organized in terms of responsibilities. I cooked my own meals, I cleaned my dorm and did my own laundry, and I Googled almost everything that I needed help with. I learned all the bus and train routes in my new city, and how to get from one side of the city to another. I actually think that I know the bus routes in Brazil better than I do in my own home city!
I also gained confidence, because I am now able to look back on my time there and say "I moved to another continent by myself without speaking a word of the language, and I not only survived, I had an amazing time." It's a certain type of pride that you gain from knowing that, and being able to tell others about your experiences. Be proud of yourself! You've done something that some others can only dream of.
3. There really is no such place like home.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder - this saying could not be possibly truer. During my time as a foreign exchange student in Brazil, I gained a profound appreciation for my island country of Barbados, and the way of life there.
Yes, you'll miss home and your family and friends - that much is obvious. However, being away from home for a little while and being immersed into another society may help you appreciate and love your own culture so much more. Plus, with the internet and so many social networks available, you don't feel completely isolated from home - your family or friends are just a message or call away.
4. Experience a different culture.
Spending time overseas can such be a mind-opening experience. You're exposed to people from different walks of life, with different ways to express themselves and their thoughts. Sometimes it may get strange, overwhelming or downright weird, but that's okay! It'll make for hilarious stories to share afterwards (especially if you have photos!)
Also - make the most of the local food and treats while you're there! Every country has its own culinary specialties to offer. I fell in love with açaí, a sort of fruit sorbet that they serve everywhere in Brazil. It's one of the things I miss most about living there!
5. Learning a new language.
Depending on which country you choose for your foreign exchange, you might end up going somewhere that doesn't speak English as the main language. Don't worry - if anything, this can help make your experience even richer.
Some exchange programs offer language classes for students at the partner university when they arrive, but you can jumpstart your learning by picking up some of the basics before you leave on your trip. Free sites like Duolingo and LiveMocha (I can personally say that these two helped me a lot) can help teach you basic pronunciation and phrases, not to mention the thousands of books, CDs and software out there available for all languages.
Learning another language may seem daunting, but it'd have so many benefits in the end. Having another language under your belt is always useful, plus it'll look good on your resumé or CV to future employers.
6. Make connections with people from all over the world.
I considered this one of the biggest highlights of my experience as a student overseas. During my stay in Brazil, I not only made friends with locals, but also with students from all over the world - Colombia, Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, the US and Canada, and even Russia. Just from my year overseas, I was able to make great connections with people from so many different nationalities - we partied and studied together and even travelled to other regions and cities in Brazil in groups. Having other students that were in the same boat as me was great, and we went on all sorts of crazy adventures together.
7. Memories for a lifetime!
What more can I say? I learned so much from my time overseas. While I was happy to go home in the end and see my family, I missed the close friends that I made during my time in Brazil. I'm still in contact with most of them up to today.
During your stay, be sure to take lots of photos, and keep souvenirs - even simple things like your student ID or a bus ticket stub make great keepsakes.
There's no doubt about it - a semester overseas is always an unforgettable experience, with memories that can last for a lifetime. You get to see and experience other cultures and countries, and who knows - your time abroad could lead to further opportunities for your career and education down the road.